Road Widening Justifications Insult My Intelligence

By: Timothy Hullihan

I am insulted when I read a DOT engineer’s projections for unfathomable gridlock in the future – typically something like, “There’s frequent gridlock at the intersection now, and it will only get worse in the future.” It’s insulting because projections like this imply that we are too stupid to learn from, and change our behavior to avoid bad situations. The only possible way that a congested road or intersection continues to get more and more congested until it is a virtual parking lot 24/7 is if everyone one of us continues to blindly do the same thing at the same time, day in and day out – surprised everyday by the gridlock that was there the day before, and the day before that. Reality, of course, is quite different, and if this kind of statement doesn’t insult you, it should make you angry because it is the basis for the wasteful expenditure of millions of tax dollars every year.

The objective analyses favored by the road building industry consider people and their vehicles in very simplified ways. We are merely population data to input into an algorithm or computer model and, viola, gridlock. Forecasts for gridlock allow DOT staffers to make studies and reports, engineers to design roads, and contractors to build them. What’s not to like, right? Everybody wins. Our roads get “fixed,” and millions of tax dollars pass through, and stimulate the economy.

The problem is, our roads might need “fixing”, but expanding them is not a fix that makes economic sense. There is a mountain of subjective and objective analyses that says we are not stupid, and we actually have a high-ability to adapt. Not surprisingly, we are smart enough to avoid gridlock by staying closer to home, carpooling, shifting our driving times, using alternate routes, and (this one makes the road building industry cringe) using alternate and more efficient forms of transportation.

The subjective research has shown that widening roads has a very short-term benefit – the same level of congestion returns very quickly because we are also smart enough to choose the newly widened version of the road we used to avoid. This is called induced demand. Interesting revelations about the depth of our adaptability in the other direction are also supported by case studies. Believe it or not, narrowing roads, and tearing down freeways is actually a thing, and in spite of the gloom and doom predictions of gridlock, it never happens. As I described in a previous post, the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, for example, was demolished and replaced with a surface street in the early 1990s. In so doing, its level of service was reduced from 110,000 vehicles per day to 45,000. Nightmarish gridlock, right? It never happened, and nobody is certain where all the cars went. However, it is clear that the neighborhoods that used to be divided by the elevated highway were beautifully reborn in its absence.

The best objective analysis of the economics of road building that I am aware of was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2009. The paper is entitled The Fundamental Laws of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities (linked here) and was prepared by two University of Toronto economists, Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner. You know it is good study when the Cato Institute (think Koch Brothers) writes a fake news story to muddy the paper’s clear conclusions. Anyway, the abstract of the study has this sentence, “We conclude that an increased provision of roads… is unlikely to relieve congestion.” Pretty clear!

The methods they used are, of course, economic in nature. Since roads play a huge role in the movement of commodities (products and people) from Point A to Point B, the speed at which they can move on roadways is an important economic variable. They used data from 228 U.S. cities to prepare economic models that show the value of increasing road capacity. They concluded that the value is extremely low since roads, regardless of designed capacity, quickly reach the same level of congestion they had prior to expansion. Thus, the speed of delivery for products being moved via congested roads, and the travel-times of the tax-payers who are paying for the road improvements is virtually the same whether an existing road is expanded or not. There are, of course, more cars and trucks moving slowly on wider, yet equally congested roadways, but, since “time is money” the economic benefit of road projects is next to zero. Duranton and Turner say in the paper’s conclusion, “…this research eliminates [road] capacity expansions… as policies to combat traffic congestion.” Again, pretty clear.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with some wonderful corollaries of congestion. 1) Staying closer to home is a very positive adaptation we make to avoid congestion. It translates into reinvestment in the homes and neighborhoods where people are presently living, and a reduction in the potential for disinvestment, decline, and abandonment of existing communities. 2) We are encouraged to look for alternative, more efficient, less costly, and more environmentally friendly ways to move people, not vehicles. After all, the “T” in DOT stands for transportation, not low occupancy vehicles, and the policies of DOTs should not be lopsidedly focused on cars and trucks. If we shift our collective focus away from moving vehicles, and toward the movement of people, better and cheaper solutions are possible.

The picture below shows that gridlock happens not because there are a lot of people on the gridlocked road, but because there are a lot of vehicles. It shows an extremely congested roadway system. Thus, the first panel is all vehicles. The second panel places a grey

screen over panel 1 so turquoise dots can be added in panel 3 to highlight just the people in the vehicles.  In comparing panel 1 to panel 4, it is important to remember that there are more people than cars, but with the cars removed congestion is reduced dramatically.

Transportation policies in a smarter future will rely more heavily on systems that encourage us to travel in higher densities, rather than the inefficient and costly present policies of continually expanding roadways without meaningfully reducing congestion. Walking and biking, for example, are very dense transportation methods, and are very low polluting.  Also, most forms of mass transit increase people-moving density and reduce pollution.

So yes, I am insulted by the typical premise for road expansion because it implies that people are stupid and inflexible. But, I am also angered by this premise because it says we must wastefully spend the public’s money to save us from our collective stupidity.  It’s as if we would all eventually perish in gridlock without a wise and powerful government saving us from ourselves.

I am convinced that this country is still full of wise and moral people. Surely we can give the number crunching a rest, and begin to form intelligent solutions to transportation systems that do not overlook human potential.

Timothy Hullihan is an architect and freelance writer from North Palm Beach, Florida. He is also a board member of Sustainable Palm Beach County.

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